Guest column: Heat mirage

Maybe it's the heat. But when I hear that Microsoft is now in the hacking business, I keep seeing visions of what these poseurs would be like as real hackers. Maybe Steve Ballmer would start calling himself Sir Defyable, and Bill Gates could adopt the nom-de-hack of OldDogTrey. Maybe a crew from Redmond would show up at the DefCon hacker's convention next summer calling itself the Cult of the Dead Horse. Maybe -- but I doubt it.

Chalk it up to weird hallucinations at the end of the millennium, or maybe just unlikely mirages in the midst of a heat wave. But somehow, the strangest images from all corners of the industry keep appearing in the midst of this long, hot northern summer.

Microsoft, for example, has tricked itself out as what it thinks a hacker looks like. After all, there's now apparently a group of Microsoft programmers whose full-time task is to hack into America Online's Instant Messenger service, so Microsoft's MSN Messenger users can chat online with AOL Instant Messenger users. (It's not working, of course, because AOL keeps closing the holes every time the Microsofties worm their way in.)Sound like a waste of time? Sure. Even more of a waste of time are Microsoft's protestations that it's all about interoperability, open interfaces and Mom's apple pie.

What it's really about, as usual, is controlling the universe. Microsoft wants to hijack what AOL's got: a solid grip on the lion's share of the instant messaging business. There's money to be made -- from advertising, from future services -- but only if you've got the users. AOL does. Microsoft doesn't.

Microsoft could cooperate with AOL -- and shell out for a licensing deal. But for Microsoft, it's not the money, it's the principle of the thing: A signed agreement might make it harder to grab AOL users in the future. So Microsoft just keeps trying to dress like a hacker.

And it's not just Microsoft. These days Compaq looks like the industry's cranky old grampa trying to chase the neighborhood kids off the lawn. Compaq is suing low-cost PC maker e-machines for patent infringement. Well, that's what the lawsuit says, anyway.

What Compaq really wants to do is to run cheapo vendors out of the PC business. After all, it's those $US599/$US499/$US399 guys who are pushing prices down, wiping out Compaq's profit margins and strangling the onetime king of the PC hill.

But Compaq is living in the past. Running off e-machines won't bring back the good ol' days of high prices and fat margins -- any other maker of cheap PCs can do what e-machines has done. And unless Compaq gets a lot more spry, those kids will always outrun the old geezer.

And isn't that IBM -- hair slicked back, sharkskin suit, looking for all the world like a car salesman -- hawking its new high-end storage server? IBM knows the new server, code-named "Shark," isn't the hot model customers want. Those features long-promised by IBM -- virtual disk capability, flash copy, dual air bags -- won't be in the showroom until next year.

But when you can't sell the good stuff, you push what's on the lot. Too bad that means customers who trust the smiling salesman won't end up with exactly what they'd hoped to get. But hey, at Honest Lou's, you'll drive away happy -- whether you like it or not.

And has Oracle Exchange, the database vendor's commerce community, really turned Larry Ellison into a shopping-mall developer? Could hapless PeopleSoft, beset by plummeting profits, really be a panhandler on the street? Could Baan, whose sales cratered by 25 per cent in the last quarter, show up as that guy at the stop light who washes your windshield hoping you'll toss him a buck?

Naaah. It's gotta be the heat ...

(Hayes, US Computerworld's staff columnist, has covered IT for 20 years. His e-mail address is frank_hayes@computerworld.com.)

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